Call him the Jewish Mack the Knife. Benya Krik, the corrupt but compelling anti-hero of Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories, springs back to life in Denis Woychuk and Stephen Brennan’s new musical, “Isaac Babel and the Gangster King.”
It’s a colorful glimpse into life in the Moscow Jewish underworld in the period following the Russian Revolution. Billing itself as “Godfather meets Fiddler on the Roof,” the show runs for the next two weeks at the Kraine Theater in the East Village.
The current production, which is presented by the Horse Trade Theater Group, has itself gotten a thuggish couple of kicks to the groin. The first came when the theater lost power during Hurricane Sandy, postponing the premiere by a week. Then, to add insult to injury, Brennan (who also directs the show and plays Babel) suddenly took sick and had to be hospitalized just before the show opened. Woychuk, who is not a professional actor, ended up going on in his stead, book in hand.
A former judge and lawyer, Woychuk had previously written a number of musicals; they include “Attorney for the Damned,” which is based on his 11 years defending the criminally insane. He owns Kraine, which is located on the lower level of KGB Bar, a literary hangout frequented by Jewish writers.
“Isaac Babel and the Gangster King” is set during the 1936 Moscow Purges. Babel stages an evening of salon-style entertainment for some high-ranking Soviet officials that features his friend Maxim Gorky (Teddy Williams) and Babel’s lover, Evegenia Yezhov (Juliana Smith), the wife of Nicolai Yezhov, the diminutive and crippled head of the secret police who was known as the Poison or Bloody Dwarf. The players act out the fictional events surrounding the wedding of Krik’s sister, when Krik famously outwitted the Russian authorities by setting fire to the police station.
Krik, he told The Jewish Week, was based on a real Jewish gangster called Yaponchik, who armed Jews against a pogrom during the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Once he gained power, however, he used it to extort money from his own co-religionists. This mirrored the Revolution itself, Woychuk said, which “ended up turning on everyone and eating its own young.” (Babel was himself shot in 1940, after being forced to “confess” that he was a spy.)
The idea of having the author meet his own character appealed to Woychuk, as it made him wonder “if you make your character, or if your character makes you.” He and Brennan aimed for a sense of rising tension throughout the musical, as the characters realize that they are all going to be killed. “Vodka is the truth serum in this piece,” Woychuk noted. “People keep getting drunker and saying truer things.” Ultimately, he noted, the show is a “musical comedy of the blackest nature.”
“Isaac Babel and the Gangster King” runs through Nov. 25 at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. Fourth St. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. For tickets, $25, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.horsetrade.info.